By Pat Launer
Orphaned kids and a killer Mama,
Vampires and ghosts and melodrama.
Hypocrisy in Politics – Whatta Concept!
THE SHOW: An Ideal Husband, Oscar Wilde’s 1893 morality tale of faithfulness, honesty and blackmail. Lamb’s Players Theatre produced the work about a decade ago and returns for another Wilde ride
THE STORY/BACKSTORY: The play is often called a ‘‘social comedy’’ because it has both a serious (‘’social,’ ‘moral’) and comedic elements. It’s concerned with Sir Robert Chiltern, a successful, well-regarded politician who’s being blackmailed by a witty but villainous woman. It seems that, in his youthful zeal to get ahead, he acquired his wealth through a shady business deal that involved revealing state secrets. If his dark past is revealed, he fears that he’ll lose not only his reputation as a paragon of integrity, but his political power and even his unswervingly adoring, idealizing (if puritanical) wife. Of course, in order to be a successful blackmailer, one’s own reputation must be beyond reproach, and the scheming Mrs. Chevely falls far below the mark. It is Sir Robert’s foppish, desultory friend, Lord Arthur Goring (a likely stand-in for the playwright) who turns out to be the most sensible and moral character, who scoffs at social convention, especially in relation to marriage. And while all around him are wringing their hands, he takes matters into his own, and dispatches the incriminating letter and the devious Mrs. Cheveley .
The basic premise is that no one is perfect, ‘ideal,’ wholly good or impeccably moral, and to pretend otherwise is unmitigated hypocrisy. This was a strong social statement directed at Wilde’s late-Victorian contemporaries, who were obsessed with purity and goodness, like many in our own time who are often tripped up by their own nasty little indiscretions, youthful or otherwise. While it presents its issues, sometimes rather didactically, the play is also quite amusing, rife with Wildean epigrams (such as, “Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear. Or, “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance”). Ultimately, Wilde is positing a message: Sooner or later, we all have to pay for what we do. But he’s also suggesting that no one should be entirely judged by his or her past.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The Lamb’s production is lovely to look at, thanks to Jeanne Reith ’s beautiful costumes, color-coordinated among the characters and changing like the seasons for each scene: fuschia , apricot, brown. Her outfits for Deborah Gilmour Smyth, who plays Mrs. Chevely , are especially stunning (the green and blue with a peacock-feather fan is to die for).
The performances are solid throughout, but director Kerry Meads seems to be more concerned with getting the comic moments just right (and that she achieves with aplomb), than exploring the darker undertones, the real pain of the revelations. She creates a good deal of droll stage business, including the between-scenes modifications of Mike Buckley’s wonderfully malleable, instantly reconfigured set.
Rick D. Meads does a marvelous job as Sir Arthur, as silly and inconsequential as one could hope, spouting most of the Wildest lines (see above) with insouciance. In a small cameo role, Jon Lorenz is a hoot as the prototypically impassive valet, expressing years of servitude and obsequiousness in one repeated phrase, “Yes, my lord,” which he exaggerates in a hilariously protracted manner. Gilmour Smyth has the “smiling damnéd villain” down pat, and her banter with Meads is a delight. Colleen Kollar Smith (newly wed to actor Lance Smith!) is charming as Lord Goring’s independent bride-to-be, though she seems a tad more flighty and less ‘edgy’ than intended. Glynn Bedington is stalwart as Sir Robert’s stodgy and unyielding wife, who must, over the course of three days and four acts, learn tolerance and forgiveness. Steve Gunderson puts in a very funny turn as the imperious old bat, Lady Markby (a close, if not quite as quotable, cousin to Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, a role often assayed by males). Robert Smyth is fine as Sir Robert, but we don’t get a true sense of his anguish – about his future or his marriage. And since that relationship is the central image of the title, we should care a whole lot more about it. As (wordy, Wildean ) entertainment, though, the show is quite engaging.
THE LOCATION: Lamb’s Players Theatre, through November 11
THE SHOW: Medea , the tragedy by Euripides (431 B.C.), in a modern translation by Dr. Marianne McDonald
THE STORY: It’s every family’s worst nightmare. The husband goes off with a younger woman. The wife, who supported him for years, turned her back on her family for him, even saved his life, is consumed by rage and an insatiable desire for revenge. In an effort to protect her children from her ex and her enemies, she murders her two young sons. She is the best and the worst, the strongest and weakest of women. She favors passion over reason. She commits the most heinous of acts. And yet, she escapes with impunity and goes on to live a better life. Her husband never recovers; he has lost his new wife and father-in-law, his children, his glory and his future.
There are so many stories within this one timeless tragedy. Medea is a foreigner, a stranger in a strange land where she is forever treated as an outsider and considered a barbarian. She has more murderous than maternal instincts. She is heroic, in a horrific way. She is a sorceress, some may say a witch (in the real and metaphorical senses). And she gloats in the successful outcome of her deadly scheme. But behind the triumph lies a mother’s true tragedy.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Ruff Yeager , one of our most imaginative local directors, has created a highly stylized production, often beautiful to behold. The stage pictures are striking, arresting. But they don’t always serve the story, or their own high concept. In this Asian-tinged, minimalist production, the stage is white; the costumes are white. There are five doors, a Japanese kimono. Large jars of sand that is made to turn red. The rhythmic beating of fists. The wildness of an African dance. Projected snippets of seminal lines. And photographic representations of characters (the hapless children, shown as a diverse array of young male duos, poor and refugee, happy and somber, from various countries and cultures).Yeager seems to be trying to make a number of potent statements, and his production is certainly intriguing. But it’s also puzzling and frustrating, and the ultimate effect is to distract and distance. By having the actors stand facing out, not looking at each other, they –and we – become detached from the story’s heightened emotions. McDonald’s translation is straightforward and clear, modern but not overly colloquial, except for the moment when Jason calls Medea ‘Bitch!’ ( twice ). It’s jarring, in an otherwise lyrical and lofty, but thoroughly accessible translation.
Monique Gaffney is riveting as the title character, fraught with fears and plans, unrestrained and yet very much in control; she can turn her anger on and off at will, to sweet-talk the King who wants to banish her, or the husband who has deserted her. John DeCarlo achieves a fine behavioral balance between impassive, heartless, fearful and smarmily loathsome. As the Nurse, Darlene Cleary provides a measure of reasoned sanity, but she’s impotent in the face of Medea’s machinations and madnes . There is a great deal of art and craft in this production (Yeager also designed the set and sound), but it falls short of achieving the lofty intentions of the director or the playwright.
THE LOCATION: 6th @ Penn Theatre, through November 11
The Governess and the Ghosts
THE SHOW: The Turn of the Screw, Jeffrey Hatcher’s 1999 adaptation of the Henry James gothic novella, written almost exactly 100 years after the original
THE BACKSTORY: James’s notebooks record a visit in 1895 to his friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who told him a tale of young children corrupted by the ghosts of depraved servants. At about the same time, a colleague published an account of a woman and child living in a house haunted by a wicked male servant and a female ghost dressed in black. So James’s story was rooted in some semblance of reality, written at a time when ghosts were considered by many to be real, dangerous and scientifically observable.
It’s a spooky tale, a psychological horror story, to be sure. On the first page of the novella, James notes that a ghost “appearing first to [a] little boy… adds a particular touch. … If the child gives the effect of another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children?” That explanation of the title is, in fact, a lot clearer than the more convoluted one that opens the play. The narrator’s relationship to the story is also more distinctly delineated. When the gentleman speaking onstage says the woman who features prominently in the tale “was my sister’s governess,” it seems as though the narrator could be the boy in the tale himself. But the book makes it clear that the speaker’s sister encountered the governess years after the “dreadful” incident occurred. Okay, whatever. There are questions and confusions enough in the narrative; Hatcher’s adaptation condenses, but doesn’t always clarify. His fascinating theatrical conceit is to place all the action, characters and narration in the care of two actors: one is the governess, and the other plays everyone else. The ghosts, thankfully, never need make an appearance. As Al fred Hitchcock so brilliantly knew (something filmmakers today fail to realize), what you imagine is far more terrifying than what can be shown.
THE STORY: This ghastly, ghostly tale revolves around a young 19th century governess who is put in charge of two recently orphaned youngsters in a remote estate in England . Though the place is lovely, it doesn’t take her long to realize that there are things about Bly (the estate) and the children, that she hasn’t been told. Two previous employees, for example, refuse to depart the premises, though they’ve been dead for some time. And the kids turn out to be scarier than the ghosts. The girl doesn’t speak at all. The boy was just expelled from his school, for unstated reasons, and both take to wandering about the grounds doing odd things. At the end, the governess and her demons battle to the death (“I name the defiler and his power’s gone,” she says – but it turns out not to be true). Ultimately, we don’t know what to believe. Are the ghosts real, or are they the products of a repressed woman’s imagination? Do the children see them, too, or are they just trying to outwit, frighten and oust yet another governess? And what’s up with young Miles? Is he as malevolent as he seems? There are no answers, in either book or play, and that’s part of the scary fun.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Janet Hayatshahi makes an impressive directorial debut, guiding her husband, David Tierney, and lovely Amy Biedel through the labyrinthine twists and turns of the intentionally ambiguous story. She uses the space (designed by Sean Murray ), excellently. The characters (especially Tierney), run up and down the two staircases and jump off the steps. They keep the action moving, though most of it exists in the mind. Hayatshahi adds some stylized movement, which is suggestive, but remains as enigmatic as the rest of the proceedings. She also makes quite a bit of the one-meeting relationship between the governess and the children’s unapproachable uncle. Then there’s the mouth-kiss between the governess and the little boy. Disturbing image, and that ramps up the Freudian interpretation that has dogged the story for decades. Biedel gives another of her solid performances; she completely draws us into her perspective, and we see those specters along with her, and wonder about the motivations of little Miles. Tierney is terrific in a raft of characterizations, morphing effortlessly between the matronly housekeeper and the little boy or girl, the aloof uncle and those phantoms lurking in the shadows (wonderfully eerie lighting by Eric Lotze ). At the conclusion, you’ll find yourself, just as James intended, scratching your head and wondering. And maybe feeling a little creeped out in the dark later that night.
THE LOCATION: Cygnet Theatre, through November 11
BOTTOM LINE : BEST BET
THE SHOW: St. Nicholas, a vampire story written in 1998 by acclaimed Irish playwright Conor McPherson, when he was just 26
THE STORY/THE BACKSTORY: The writer’s inspiration came to him in a dream, in which he was “procuring people for a house of vampires, and there was this pretty girl and she’d been bitten and I gave her Paracetamol ” (a pain reliever). Those scenes appear intact in the play, which centers on one of the most notorious of bloodsuckers: a theater critic. This dissolute, self-loathing, depressed, drunken cynic has squandered his talent and his life, forever playing a game, abusing his power, baiting the recipients of his nasty reviews (often written before he even sees the play). He’s lazy, slothful, inebriated and unpleasant. But the setup is something the playwright relished: “the idea of being in a theater with a theater critic who is really an actor pretending to be a theater critic being judged by theater critics.” Not bad at all.
The language of the play is spectacular – gorgeous images, meticulously crafted turns of phrase. And there, sitting center stage, talking right to us, sipping his pint, is the hack, the critic who finally, after leaving his wife, daughter and job (to run after a marginally talented young ingénue), gets the ‘story’ he’s been looking for all his life. (He admits that, throughout his career, he never had an original opinion or idea). He careens between self-disgust and self-aggrandizement. In London , where he has chased down the mediocre production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, stalking the lovely young thing, he unexpectedly encounters a rather dapper, seductive vampire. The Man soon becomes a pimp for the undead coven, bringing fresh young blood in for vampiric amusement every night. It’s a painless experience, he learns, and no one remembers anything about it the next day. (He also learns a nifty way to ward off vampires. Forget the garlic; it’s all about rice, which vampires are compelled to count, obsessively, grain by grain). He falls into the routine, but he hates himself for it (“It’s easy when you’re told what to do and you’re under authority.” Take that as a political statement, if you will). At his nadir, in observing the ways of the vampires, the Man learns something about humanity and mortality.
It’s the raw power of storytelling, the intense drama of word-images. A chilling, supernatural tale and an actor’s showcase.
And St. Nicholas? He’s subtly referred to several times within the densely woven text, when the writer harks back to the only contented times of his life, holidays with the kids he’s abandoned. He’s rooted in the past, unable to move forward. What the vampires give him is ‘charm.’ What they teach him, inadvertently, is the importance of conscience. So, he asks us, “were they real, or a dream? Well, I’ve got to ask you, what the hell isn’t a dream?”
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Last year, Cygnet artistic director Sean Murray did a wonderful reading of the play. Now he’s directing local favorite Ron Choularton , who seems to thoroughly relish this one-man, two-act fever-dream of depravity. The first act is almost all setup, showing us, in sordid detail, just how cruel and degenerate our ‘hero’ is. When the vampires finally do appear, the act abruptly ends. Events really get rolling in the second act, which is more interesting, less repetitive. But Choularton keeps us spellbound throughout, dying to know (pun intended) just where his story is going, just how redeemable or hopeless this vile creature really is. It’s a wonderful, word-drunk, tour de force play and performance .
THE LOCATION: off-nights at Cygnet Theatre, through November 10
BOTTOM LINE : BEST BET
Two by Two
THE SHOW: Malashock Dance ’s open studio evening, in preparation for their upcoming production of “Let’s Duet,” was another sheer delight. I expected to see director/choreographer John Malashock creating new dances, as he’d done some months ago when he invited the audience in. But these were fully formed, already-set pieces, marvelously performed by a corps of eight beautiful, versatile dancers.
In his introductory remarks, Malashock admitted that the duet is his favorite form, because it allows him to convey the core of human relationship, in all it permutations. And each dance represented just that. An abusive man, a reluctant woman, two mirroring/competitive females, a neglectful wife. They were all there, screaming their connections and dissociations in silent eloquence. Malashock’s assistant/associate and lead dancer, the marvelous Michael Mizerany , was featured in four of the six pieces showcased last weekend. My own personal favorite was the newest, “Silver and Gold,” which Mizerany commissioned from Malashock for his own showcase last month. The muscular Mizerany , perfectly paired with the tiny, apparently feather-light but mighty Christine Marshall, told the heartrending tale of a relationship that begins in perfect synch (beautifully backed by Matthew Barley’s stirring cello performance ) and then she cools and then turns cold and the relationship devolves.
The other audience (and dancer-polled!) favorite was “The Gypsy’s Wife,” from Malashock’s 2001 creation, “Together in the Fires of Delight,” a funny/tragic piece about a wayward spouse, and the beleaguered man left behind and willingly mistreated. The dance paralleled but wisely didn’t illustrate Leonard Cohen’s gritty voice and lyrics. Lara Segura was scintillating in this number, her moves full of wild abandonment, her face a stage on which masses of emotions played. Mizerany is also a highly physically and facially expressive dancer; this is one area where Marshall could use additional development. It should all come together for the final performance of more than a dozen works from the 60+ dances that Malashock has created over the past 20 years. If you’ve ever seen or been part of a pair, you owe it to yourself to see what pairing can really look like, two bodies relating, intertwining, resisting, colliding, expressing love, loss, sorrow, pain and disdain. It’s nothing short of thrilling.
THE LOCATION: The full “Let’s Duet” performance is Nov. 2-4 in Qualcomm Hall, November 2-4
Broadway on MTV … it was a good match: MTV and the Broadway phenom (for young girls, that is), Legally Blonde. If it runs again, see it, if only for the hyper-active first act, which opens with a really clever teen spoof, “ Omigod You Guys.” As Elle, the pink-clad ditz-turned Harvard law scholar, Laura Bell Bundy is very talented; she sings and dances and acts convincingly, but she’s no Reese Witherspoon. She lacks that certain charismatic something, but the girls in the audience scream all the same (and she was nominated for a Tony). The sly satire and sarcasm (music and lyrics by Nell Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe ) really hit the mark. The show’s still kinda goofy, though it snagged 7 Tony noms ; Jerry Mitchell, with his decidedly MTV warp-speed choreography, should have won. The costumes (Gregg Barnes) are totally cool, too. You might not want to fork over $100+ to see it, but free, at home – hey! It’s a bargain.
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… KUSI and I… … My appearance on “Inside San Diego ” this past Wednesday, Oct. 17 can be seen on my website at www.patteproductions.com . It was a Halloween triple-bill: vampires and zombies and prom dates, oh my! [I talked about Dracula, St. Nicholas and Zombie Prom]. Check it out.
…Tribute to Luis… “The Legacy of Luis Valdez, Father of Chicano Theater,” the documentary I made with Rick Bollinger of City TV, will be shown at the 11thInternational Latino Film Festival in the Bay Area, as part of a Tribute to Luis. The Festival runs Nov. 2-18; our film shows at 6pm on Thursday Nov. 8. I’ll be there, along with the Valdez family – will you? www.latinofilmfestival.org
…Hot Tix : My weekly theater suggestions are now appearing on KNSD’s What’s Hot webpage: just go to www.nbcsandiego.com , and click on What’s Hot.
…Local Link to Hall of Fame… That would be the Theater Hall of Fame. This year’s inductees include our own Jack O’Brien (he sure got MY vote!), as well as the inimitable Harvey Fierstein , currently appearing at Jack’s home base, the Old Globe Theatre (in his latest work, A Catered Affair).
… Al t-Amadeus… Robert Salerno, artist in residence at Vantage Theatre, continues the run of his new play, Cadenza: Mozart’s Last Year, a fresh look at “the most famous tragedy in music history.” In his race against time (in this version, due to illness, not Salieri ), Mozart “confronts death on his own terms, aided by several unusual characters and a trip into the eleventh dimension of Modern Physics.” Rhys Green stars as Mozart. Vantage artistic director Dori Salois (wife of Salerno ) tells me that “there has already been talk of translating this into German for the Salzburg Festival, and Jung Ho Pak has requested that the production be part of his upcoming concert series.” At the Centro Cultural de la Raza , through Oct. 28. home.san.rr.com/ vantagetheatre / .
…Don’t forget your Monday night readings: Vox Nova Theatre Company’s new holiday show, A Christmas Carol: Not-so-Tiny Tim’s Great Big Musical, written by its founder/artistic director, Ruff Yeager . October 22 at the Lyceum Theatre. www.voxnovatheatrecompany.com
And on Oct. 29, Carlsbad Playreaders presents Horton Foote’s 1995 drama, The Young Man from Atlanta, winner of the 1997 Tony Award for Best Play . At the Dove Library in Carlsbad . www.carlsbadplayreaders.org
…It isn’t just Halloween season… it’s also Dia de los Muertos . And Chronos Theatre Group is here to help you honor the dead, with a memorial performance of music, dance and spoken word. Friday, November 2, 10pm- midnight in the Lyceum Underground ,.
…Tempest with a Twist… Caliban’s Island, George Weinberg Harter’s free adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest, a comic riff on “Gilligan’s Island ,” runs through Oct. 28 at the Westminster Theatre in Point Loma. Directed by Sandy Hotchkiss Gullans , the show features Walter Murray ( Caliban ), Tom Haine (Prospero), Jonathan Dunn-Rankin and the writer and director, among others. firstname.lastname@example.org
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
The Turn of the Screw and St. Nicholas – a deliciously ghostly double-bill, excellently performed and sure to leave you wondering (in the best dramatic way)
Cygnet Theatre, on and off-nights, through November 11
Humble Boy – a Hamletian man-child, overpowered by his oversexed mother, grieving for his absent father; quirky characters, delightful production
New Village Arts , through November 11
The Busy World is Hushed – fathers, faith and family — a mother-son and man-to-man confrontation. Wise, witty, thought provoking and very well done
Diversionary Theatre, through October 28
A Catered Affair – poignant, touching story, beautifully acted, well sung, with the music excellently integrated into the dialogue
The Old Globe, through November 4
Thoroughly Modern Millie — thoroughly engaging production, with great singing and dancing
Welk Resort Theatre, through November 4
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
There is sooo much on San Diego stages this month. Just pick a theater and GO!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.
For more than 20 years, Pat Launer has been the only regular broadcast theater critic in San Diego . An Emmy Award-winner with a Ph.D. in Communication Arts & Sciences, Pat sees and reviews more than 200 local theater productions every year. For the past decade, she has hosted and produced The Patté Awards for Theatre Excellence, a gala community event that honors local theatermakers (“San Diegans making theater for San Diego ”) and celebrates the broad diversity of San Diego theater .